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MIT Technology Review

From the President: Priming the Innovation Pipeline

How to keep new-science ideas from getting stuck in the lab.

August 18, 2015

Today in the United States, we depend on a highly optimized, venture-capital-driven system to bring innovation to market. This system works beautifully for digital technologies and for tangible innovations that are based on established science and technology.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif

But the current system leaves a vital category of innovation stranded: new ideas based on new science. Self-fertilizing plants. Bacteria that can synthesize biofuels. Safe nuclear energy. Affordable desalination at scale. It takes time—perhaps 10 years—for such new-science ideas to trek from lab to market, often including time to invent new manufacturing processes. That’s too long for most venture capitalists. The result? As a nation, we are leaving a great deal of potential innovation stuck in the lab.

The United States needs a more systematic way to help its new-science innovators deliver their ideas to the world. That calls for accelerating a two-stage process: from idea to investment, and from investment to impact.

To create a new way of supporting the first stage—from idea to investment—a coalition of funders from the public, for-profit, and not-for-profit sectors could work together to establish “innovation orchards.” These would provide what universities alone cannot: the physical space, mentoring, and bridge funding for entrepreneurs to turn new-science concepts into workable products, up to the point that they meet venture capital’s typical five-year threshold for the journey from investment to market impact. This would make investing in tangible or tangible-digital hybrid innovations no riskier than investing in the purely digital.

A second approach: find ways to shorten the full span from idea to impact, reducing it from, say, 10 years to five. There’s a growing body of evidence from MIT and elsewhere that in a range of high-potential “tangible” fields such as nanomanufacturing and materials science, it may be possible to reproduce the process of rapid, relatively low-cost refinement and iteration that is so powerful in advancing purely digital concepts. We could also speed the process by helping researchers more efficiently master the best practices of the most effective new-science entrepreneurs.

There may be even better ways to capitalize on this lost potential. At MIT—where people work so hard to pioneer new science and new-science technologies—I believe we need to help create an innovation pipeline that delivers every drop.